Hopes World Cup will widen league's appeal
With less than seven months to go before the Rugby League World Cup kicks off, the tournament's general manager, Sally Bolton, says everything is falling into place to make the event an unforgettable six weeks.
Attendances are down in the Super League and the small salary cap brought in to save some clubs from going to the wall has some worrying that this will lead to more top players moving to the NRL, or to rugby. The sport in England needs a pick-me-up and the World Cup could be just that.
League's showpiece event will kick off with a double-header at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on October 26, with England playing Australia and Wales going up against Italy, and it culminates with the final at Old Trafford, Manchester, on November 30.
Bolton says that with 209 days to go, everything is on track to deliver a great tournament.
"Planning a tournament is a very long process and we're now getting to the exciting end of that," Bolton told Sunday News.
"We are working with each of the teams on their schedules when they're here, we're looking at the opening ceremony and we've just finished doing the interviews for all of the volunteers."
One of the selling points for Rugby League World Cup 2013 is that this is the biggest sporting event in Britain since last year's Olympics and Bolton hopes the public are still on a high after that experience. "We have a golden series following the Olympics," she said. "Our event is this year, we've got the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and Rugby World Cup in 2015, so there is a lot going on.
"But we are the first cab off the rank post the Olympics and we're very much looking to take advantage of the excitement generated around the Olympics.
"A lot of people who were never previously interested in sport have got excited about watching new sports and we're hoping, from a legacy perspective, we can get a lot of people watching the World Cup and then they'll continue watching league."
There will be 21 venues used for the 28 matches, which is a lot more than most other sports' World Cups, but Bolton says the aim is to spread the league message to many places, before going to the usual power bases come the business end of the tournament.
"The schedule is a reflection of some key objectives," she said.
"One was about playing to our strengths, using the locations we had in the traditional areas of the game, where we knew there would be strong support.
"But also looking at some strategic expansion into newer areas, like Bristol, which is a new area for rugby league but a lot of development work has already gone on there and the World Cup will sit on top of some really strong community foundations.
"It is the same in Limerick, where a lot of development work has gone on.
"Then the big part of the tournament is making sure we incorporated all the major parts of the game.
"So the opening ceremony is in Cardiff and rugby league fans adore Cardiff, having been down there for the ‘magic weekend' [where an entire round of Super League games are played over the weekend at Millennium Stadium] on a number of occasions.
"Wembley is synonymous with rugby league with the Challenge Cup final, so we wanted to take something there and the semifinal double header sits perfectly for that.
"Old Trafford is also synonymous with rugby league, with the Super League grand final being played there every year.
"There is more of a geographical spread than some people expected, but with a bit of strategic thought behind it."
Bolton said she came to New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup two years ago to observe some of the initiatives that made it such an outstanding tournament.
"We're not afraid to learn from other people's success," she said.
"I looked closely at the things that were put in place. We are doing some similar things around the adopt-a-nation idea.
"Clearly the English people will be following England, but we're also looking for people in all of the host areas to have a second team, like Samoa in Warrington.
"This will also involve education programmes in the schools and events around the cities.
"Similarly with the Olympics, in how they generated an atmosphere in each of the venues."
One of the hurdles organisers need to overcome is to get people to understand the draw.
As there are likely only three countries that have any chance of winning the World Cup - England, Australia and New Zealand - and there are some countries that have little history in league, there has been an unorthodox approach to the group stage.
England and Australia are pooled together, New Zealand are in another group and there are two groups of minnows.
"As we get closer to it people will understand why we've done it," Bolton said.
"From the beginning we've been clear that we're in pursuit of a very appealing sporting tournament to watch. We've got 14 nations, so you've got to end up with the structure we've got.
"After that, we've tried to make sure we've got competitive matches where possible, with relatively evenly matched teams."